After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

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After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

From Comcast SportsNet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the Washington Nationals' first draft pick back in June 2005, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was there almost from the start, through the various last-place finishes and the consecutive 100-loss seasons.

He stuck around, signing a couple of long-term contracts, always convinced he would be a part of a winner one day.

That day finally arrived Monday night, when the Nationals clinched their first NL East title since moving from Montreal seven years ago.

And so, his gray championship T-shirt soaked with champagne and beer, white ski goggles dangling around his neck, Zimmerman -- low-key and straight-faced through the ups and downs (well, mostly downs) -- paused in front of the couple of thousand fans in the stands cheering and chanting during the players' on-field celebration. On his way to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, Zimmerman raised both arms and bellowed.

"The odds were in my favor, that I was going to win at some point here, right?" Zimmerman said moments earlier, smiling as wide a smile as can be.

"For all the things we've been through, all the things this organization's been through," he added, "to be right here, right now, it's pretty impressive."

Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Nationals earned the division championship, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Washington, in first place since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves' loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals congratulated each other in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.

"The way it happened tonight doesn't really matter," Zimmerman said. "We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."

Amid the postgame delirium on the field, the crushed cans and strewn bottles collecting in the grass, pitcher Gio Gonzalez grabbed 86-year-old team owner Ted Lerner and steered him toward the gaggle of players.

"Ted, this is your party!" the effervescent left-hander yelled. Then, turning toward teammates, Gonzalez shouted: "Hey! Who's got the cooler? This is the man, right here!"

All in all, 21-game winner Gonzalez and the rest of the first team in 79 years to bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital threw quite a victory party. Thanks to strong pitching from Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper's burst of energy and Adam LaRoche's slugging, the Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from achieving the sort of success that seemed so far away only a few years ago.

"The puzzle came together," Lerner said, "a little earlier than we expected."

When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared "NL East Division Champions."

It was the second division crown in franchise history. The Montreal Expos won the NL East in 1981, a strike-shortened season, by beating the Phillies in a best-of-five playoff.

"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."

When the game ended, the Phillies -- winners of the previous five NL East titles; already eliminated from playoff contention this year -- gathered in the middle of the diamond for regular post-victory handshakes.

"Made me mad. Yes it did. Very much so. I'm a bad loser," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about watching Washington clinch against his club. "Nobody should be a good loser. I'm a bad loser and I always will be."

The Nationals, meanwhile, collected in their home clubhouse for alcohol-spraying. They gathered around general manager Mike Rizzo and dumped bubbly over his shaved head. Harper, who has more homers (22) than years on earth (19), shared some apple cider with LaRoche's 9-year-old son, Drake.

"I'll remember being in the scrum in the middle of the clubhouse with all the guys, just elated and all together," Rizzo said later. "We live with each other for seven months a year. (This is the) culmination of all that emotion and such a successful season for us."

On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth -- and guaranteed Washington a postseason game for the first time since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants.

But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn't all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand.

With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd came a few minutes before the first pitch, when a booming voice over the loudspeakers let everyone know that the home team's "magic number is down to one!"

In the end, Kyle Kendrick (11-12) pitched seven scoreless innings for the win. John Lannan (4-1) gave up two runs in five innings for Washington. That the Nationals lost did not matter, of course.

The spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.

All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.

Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last offseason; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a 126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.

He was right in the middle of all the celebrating, twirling a shirt overhead in the middle of a circle of bouncing, fist-pumping, alcohol-dumping teammates.

Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies' perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals' title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies.

"These guys have been through a lot. That just goes to show you it's not easy. It's not easy getting to this point," Werth said. "Luck plays into it a lot. You've got to be on good teams -- and I'm on a good team."

Orioles strikeouts continue, losing streak reaches four

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Orioles strikeouts continue, losing streak reaches four

Astros 4, Orioles 2 

Winner: McCullers (1-1) 
Loser:  Gausman  (0-2) 
Save: Giles (1) 

WHAT WENT WRONG: Kevin Gausman equaled his career high by allowing three home runs, two to George Springer and a two-run shot by Luis Valbuena.

The last time he allowed three homers was on May 28, 2013, his second major league start, against the Nationals.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Rookie Ashur Tolliver, who had been in the Orioles minor league system since 2009, made his major league debut with 1 1/3 scoreless innings. 

MORE ORIOLES: MANY UNDERSTUDIES FOR WIETERS

STREAKING THE WRONG WAY: The Orioles have lost four straight games for the first time this season. 

LATE OFFENSE: The Orioles had just two hits came in the first eight innings, a home run by Mark Trumbo in the second, and Hyun Soo Kim’s single in the sixth. 

In the ninth, Kim singled and came home on a long single by Manny Machado.

STRIKING OUT, STRIKING OUT: The Orioles struck out 15 times, enabling Houston pitchers to set a major league record with 52 in the three-game series.

LEAVING THEM ON: Lance McCullers walked the bases loaded in the fifth, but Matt Wieters struck out to end the inning.

OOPS: Machado made his third error in two games. 

GOODBYE VALBUENA: The Orioles will be happy to say goodbye to Luis Valbuena, who homered in all three games against the Orioles. He has seven lifetime home runs (against Baltimore.

UP NEXT: Mike Wright (2-3, 4.97) faces Trevor Bauer (3-2, 4.31) as the Orioles begin a three-game series in Cleveland on Friday night. 

Bryce Harper cut up his batting gloves so they wouldn't be sold online

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper cut up his batting gloves so they wouldn't be sold online

When Bryce Harper came to the plate sans batting gloves for his third at-bat on Thursday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, the move appeared to be his latest attempt to break out of his month-long slump. With the gloves on, he had struck out and weakly grounded out in his prior chances, so perhaps this was just another trick to try and get him out of his funk. 

Cameras even caught Harper ripping his gloves in the dugout apart just before the plate appearance, so it was clear this was not an accident. But as he revealed after the game, while it was done intentionally, it wasn't for the reasons you'd think. 

"Nah, it's just so people don't sell them on eBay to tell you the truth," Harper said afterward. 

Huh? EBay?

"I always cut the batting gloves up," he continued, "and [they] ripped on the top of the hand and [I] had the bat boy come in and give me another pair and put them on and ripped them again."

Regardless of the motivations, going glove-less worked; Harper launched a mammoth home run to the third deck to tie the game, which marked his first long ball in nearly two weeks. 

"I guess the baseball gods don't want me to wear the batting gloves right now," he quipped. "I went up and hit a homer and came back and cut 'em up just so guys don't come out of the trash can and grab 'em and sell 'em. It's happened before."

Alrighty then. Apparently people have been trying to auction off Harper memorabilia before he was able to put a stop to it. So if you're looking to sell some game-worn Harper batting gloves, it sounds like you won't be finding any in the trash cans near the Nats dugout. 

Harper, Espinosa solo home runs back Ross as Nats top Cardinals

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USA TODAY Sports

Harper, Espinosa solo home runs back Ross as Nats top Cardinals

Postgame analysis of the Nationals 2-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night: 

How it happened: The two offenses were quieted for most of the early innings, with Cardinals rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz's solo home run proving to be the difference through 5 1/2 frames. 

But that's when Bryce Harper chose an opportune time to break out of his four-game hitless streak. The Nats' right fielder hit a towering solo shot — his 12th on the season — to tie the game in the sixth. That was followed by another solo homer in the following inning, this time by Danny Espinosa, to give Washington a 2-1 lead. 

In the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon came in and retired the side in order, sending the Nats home victors. 

What it means: The Nats move to 29-19 after notching their fourth win against the Cards this season. The victory also marked the 1,700th of Dusty Baker's managerial career, which ranks 17th all-time. He's second in career wins among active skippers to San Francisco Giants' Bruce Bochy. 

Joe Ross returns to form: Ross put together what was perhaps his best outing in nearly a month. He limited the Cardinals to one run on six hits over 7 innings, struck out four and issued one walk. Surprisingly, Ross' ERA now sits at 2.52, which leads the Nats rotation. 

After day off, Harper goes yard: In his first two at-bats against Leake, it appeared that Harper's month-long slump would continue for another night. He struck out in the first inning after being ahead 3-0 in the count, then weakly tapped a grounder to second base in the fourth. But the third time was the charm for the reigning NL MVP, who launched a majestic 434 foot-bomb to the third deck in right field. Who knows if this means Harper's finally out of his funk, but it's a start. 

Up next: The second of this four-game set between these two clubs takes place Friday night at 7:05 p.m. The Nats will lean on Max Scherzer (5-3, 3.80 ERA), while the Cardinals will send lefty Jaime Garcia (3-4, 3.59 ERA) to the bump.